Yeah, the Nats' starters were Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the fourth- and seventh-best pitchers, so this isn't Maryland-Baltimore County felling Virginia. (Though the UMBC campus does sit 35 miles from Nationals Park. Just sayin'.) Nobody saw the Nats as a garden-variety wild card. Everybody figured they'd be a tough out, provided they survived the coin-flip wild-card game. Which they did, if only just.
Twenty-two days ago, the Nationals trailed Milwaukee 3-1 with four outs to go. Josh Hader, among the most fearsome relievers in the sport, was facing the 20-year-old Juan Soto. The latter drove a single to right field, whereupon rookie Trent Grisham bobbled it. Three runs scored. It was Grisham's first big-league error. He was playing only because Christian Yelich, last year's National League MVP, shattered his kneecap with a foul ball in September.
The Nats’ winning rally began with a Hader pitch that hit both the knob of Michael Taylor’s bat and his hand, not necessarily in that order. A play ruled a hit-by-pitch on the field couldn’t be overturned by replay review. Then Ryan Zimmerman deposited a broken-bat hit into center field. If you take away any of the above – the non-HBP, the bloop single, the outfield error – these Nationals might well have been one-and-done again. But that’s baseball.
That also was baseball we beheld in the eighth inning of Game 4 in St. Louis. The Braves led 4-3 and were four outs from clinching the series. Yadier Molina fought off a Shane Greene pitch. The ball ticked off the top of a leaping Freddie Freeman's glove to score Paul Goldschmidt, aboard after guiding a soft double down the left-field line. Here was a postgame conversation with Brian McCann, who was catching that day and has since retired.
MB: “Greene broke Goldschmidt’s bat, right?”
McCann, grimly: “He hit it off the label.”
MB: “And the pitch to Yadi?”
McCann, grimmer still: “Off the label.”
Two days later, the Braves yielded 10 runs in a first inning that saw the Cardinals manage only five hits, none a home run. The Nationals were close to losing the wild-card game and close to losing Game 5 in L.A. The Braves were close to eliminating St. Louis without a Game 5. None of that happened, and here the Nats are, up 2-love on the best darn team in baseball. And here the Braves aren’t, having sacked up the bats three weeks ago.
As the Yankees radio voice John Sterling — old-timers recall him as a Braves/Hawks voice in the ’80s — says roughly once an inning: You can’t predict baseball. That’s not entirely true: Over the fullness of a regular season, teams finish where they should finish. October throws everything into a trash compactor, and what comes out isn’t always recognizable. No manager would use a starting pitcher in relief on opening day, as Washington’s Dave Martinez did with Strasburg in the wild-card game and Patrick Corbin in Game 1 of the World Series. It’s still baseball; it’s just not the baseball of the regular season.
Nothing will erase the indignity of 10-0 after a half-inning of Game 5, but the majestic Astros suffered something close Wednesday. Game 2 was tied entering the seventh. Kurt Suzuki, an ex-Brave, led off with a home run off Verlander. Two walks and two outs later, manager A.J. Hinch would order Soto to be walked intentionally. It was the first time this season — a season its 174th game — Houston had done such a thing. It won’t again soon.
Howie Kendrick grounded to Alex Bregman, maybe the best of the many splendid ’Stros. The third baseman couldn’t glove it. Another run. Asdrubal Cabrera, who struck out three times against Verlander, delivered a two-run single off Ryan Pressly. A wild pitch moved the runners over. Zimmerman grounded to Bregman, who threw the ball away. The Nationals scored six runs — on four hits, two of which didn’t leave the infield — in an inning started by a Hall of Fame pitcher.
The Astros, it must be said, aren't done. Ten teams have won the World Series after trailing 2-0. Only three teams have won after losing the first two games at home. The most recent example came in 1996. The Yankees lost Games 1 and 2 in the Bronx by the aggregate score of 16-1. They didn't lose again. Their opponent was …
(Are you really going to make me say it? OK, fine.)